Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Doctor Who Book Review: The Also People

I bought this book because I thought I would hate it.

It's the story of the Doctor visiting an extremely thinly veiled stand-in for the Culture. Ben Aaronovitch was pretty open that "the People" are the Culture but even without his admission, it's pretty clear to those familiar with the series. The People have have the same kind of drones specific to the Culture, the same naming conventions for their ships, and are even dealing with the consequences of a war similar to the one the Culture waged with the Idirans. He didn't even bother filing off the serial numbers. And I'm fine with that. If you're going to steal, you might as well go whole hog. 

Specifically, this is the story of the Seventh Doctor visiting the Culture. This pleases me. Not only is he one of my favorites, but had this been the Tenth Doctor, the story would have been either "The Doctor fixes the Culture" or "The Doctor destroys the Culture."

Let me tell you a little about my Doctor Who background. I'm most familiar with the Doctor through the television series. I've probably seen every episode of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors. I've watched some of the Third, though I've probably missed more than I've seen. I've mostly read about the Second and First Doctors. I've watched the complete run of Nine and Ten, but only the debut of Matt Smith. (I think that he and Moffat make a quality show, but it's so far removed from what I want out of my Doctor Who that I don't to watch it.)

I've read a couple of the novels and I know of the Missing Adventures and the New Adventures but I don't really follow them. I have the old FASA RPG and the newer Adventures in Time and Space and I think I have a PDF somewhere of the Time Lord one that fell in-between.
In the past year, I've listened to two audiobooks. I loved Shada and hated Prisoner of the Daleks. It was so terrible that Audible gave me my credit back.

I think it's accurate to say that I'm more of a fan of the Culture than of the modern incarnation of Doctor Who at this point. 

So, that's how I'm approaching this book.

This review is going to have Spoilers.

You've been warned. 


We open with the fable of a leopard caught in a trap. It begs a woman to release it, and she makes it promise not to eat her. It reneges and starts chasing her as soon as she frees it. She finds another talking animal, a hare, and it helps her get the leopard back in the pit. The hare asks her if she's going to let it out again.

And I thought, "Oh, fuck me. It's going to be that kind of story. The leopard represents the Minds, the hare is the Doctor and the woman is the biological entities in the Culture. The Doctor is going to break all the Minds and 'free' the People and then ask them if they'll let themselves be enslaved again."

I hate that kind of "my fandom is better than your fandom" bullshit, where the heroes of a setting prove how much better they are by showing up thinly veiled expatriates from a rival setting. Is there anything more juvenile than this? 

Fortunately, I was almost completely wrong in my assessment. 

The TARDIS arrives on a Dyson sphere with three companions, a man named Chris and two women, Roz and Bernice. Apparently they needed some R&R after their last adventure. And as this is the Seventh Doctor, he also has an ulterior motive.  

Kadiatu, the super-powered descendant of the Brigadier wound up on the People's sphere and the Doctor has a friendly drone keeping an eye on her. 

This is the peril of jumping into the middle of a series. Aaronovitch does a pretty good job explaining her presence, though. I didn't have any emotional investment for her, and devoid of context, the super-powered descendant of the Brigadier seems more than a little fan-wanky, but I was able to accept her and I understood what she was doing there. As an added bonus, she figures into the main plot at the end. 

I didn't think that a Culture/Dr. Who crossover could work. The science in the Culture series isn't really hard sci-fi like Gibson or Stephenson, but the science in Doctor Who is so soft that it's basically magic. Also, time travel is explicitly impossible in the Culture series.

The Culture isn't hard sci-fi, but I tend to treat it as such because it understands the scale of hard sci-fi. Space is vast. Computers think a lot faster than people. Dr. Who works on a scale of miles and minutes and the Culture deals in parsecs and picoseconds. 

Adversaries like the Daleks occasionally engage in outrageous machinations like moving planets across the universe, but most of their actions in Doctor Who are some variation of zapping someone in line of site within thirty feet. The Culture, in contrast, has been known to engage in hostilities from outside a star system. Someone in the Also People mentioned that the People could neutralize a target from 30 light years away. I can't think of any specific instance where the Culture operated at that range, but that seems consistent with how they've been described.

Early on in the book we learn that the People have a non-aggression pact with the Time Lords. The People won't research time travel and the Time Lords won't go back in time to undermine the People. The impression that I get is that the Time Lords could be assured of coming out on top of any confrontation, but it would be costly enough that they'd want to avoid it. 

While the Doctor and his companions are there, a drone is murdered. The Doctor appoints himself and his companions as investigators. We get a murder investigation, which isn't interesting in itself, but Aaronovitch absolutely nails the mannerisms of the Seventh Doctor. Also, Roz amuses herself by cracking wise about the murder victim to those who knew him. I know she's got a traumatic past, but that's pretty close to unforgivable, and as this is my first impression of her, she just comes across as a straight up asshole.

I like the governing AI of the Dyson Sphere, "God", even if I think it's a terrible name. Part of what I don't like about the direction of the new TV series is that there seems to be a mandate that no one can be as awesome as the Doctor (except maybe for Moffat's other pet, River Song, but that's a discussion for another post).  But I like the Doctor best when he has peers to play off. God is great. Not a Time Lord, not necessarily even a friend, maybe not even as smart as the Doctor, but definitely a peer.

I figured God was the villain, because Hub minds are very nearly omniscient in their places of power and it seemed unlikely that a lesser intelligence would be able to slip something past. I was wrong about that too. (Though in my defense, God seems less capable than a Hub Mind)

I like the interludes ("hyperludes") about the nature and scale of machine intelligence, some excerpts from the non-aggression treaty, the bit with the swarm, and the machine junta, the latter of which I thought was especially neat, and which ties back to the main plot. During the war, an away team of two biologicals and a drone is killed. In a near instantaneous response, the ship Mind wipes out the colony they were investigating by displacing a bunch of anti-matter down there, and then, nearly simultaneous with that, its crew of drones removes it from command.

I like that a lot. Aaronovitch clearly has some respect for the culture of the Culture. Good people do shitty things in war, and a machine that thinks like a man, only faster, can do a lot of damage before a human even realizes there is a problem. Even after this atrocity, the People want to rehabilitate this AI with PTSD, so rather than dismantle it, they give it a new life and a new identity so it can come to terms with what it has done.

I have a small problem with the ending. Earlier in the book, the drone baby-sitting performed a routine scan on Kadiatu and gets nailed by what amounts to a virus created by her unusual brain patterns. The Doctor uses the same virus to disable the ship Mind that is behind all the trouble. (He suggests interfacing with the Mind to speed up communication in a scene I otherwise like, because the Mind points out the Doctor can't think as fast as it can, and the Doctor agrees, but says he thinks faster than he can talk, and he can talk pretty fast.) Thing is, the drone mentions that it was only vulnerable to Kadiatu's virus because it wasn't expecting something like that from a simple organic. Not only should the ship Mind be expecting some kind of trickery from the Doctor, but it's also orders of magnitudes more sophisticated. 

And the simple explanation is that the Doctor somehow enhanced the Kadiatu's virus. I'd certainly buy that. Same virus, run through a Time Lord's Fourth Dimensional brain. Works for me. I would go so far as to say that this is what the author intended. I would have been happy if he had either explained why it worked against the ship Mind or if he hadn't mentioned that it shouldn't have worked against the drone. That's a minor complaint, though. 

I really liked it. I thought I would hate it and I was wrong. It works as a Doctor Who story AND a Culture story, and I really would have thought them so different as to be irreconcilable. 

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